Merlots Worth Sipping, Despite The Bad Rap

Host Scott Simon busts the myth that Merlots are verboten, promulgated in the 2004 film Sideways, with Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Some universal truths are based merely on rumor or clever conjecture, like the one that the Cubs will never win a World Series. Or that it's so 2005 to order merlot. Now, merlot is a full, really full red wine that was mocked in that 2004 midlife crisis movie "Sideways."

(Soundbite of movie, "Sideways")

Mr. THOMAS HADEN CHURCH (Actor): (As Jack) Do not sabotage me. If you want to be a (bleep) lightweight then that's your call, but do not sabotage me.

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI (Actor): (As Miles): Oh, aye, aye, captain. You've got it.

Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) And if they want to drink merlot we're drinking merlot.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) No. If anybody orders merlot I'm leaving. I am not drinking any (bleep) merlot.

Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) OK. OK. Relax, Miles. No merlot. Did you bring your Xanax?

SIMON: So is merlot really forbidden fruit of the vine? Was it ever? Only one man can clear this up for us - Gary Vaynerchuk, our wine guy, the proprietor of Wine Library and host of Wine Library TV. He joins us from our New York.

How are you my friend?

Mr. GARY VAYNERCHUK (Host, Wine Library TV): I'm tremendous. How are you?

SIMON: I'm just fine, thank you.

So Nielsen released a study last year saying that merlot is in fact the most popular varietal.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Yep. I mean, you know, this is pop culture versus reality a lot of times. It definitely took a hit and sales took a hit after that 2004 movie. And "Sideways" was a huge hit - Academy Award nominated. And we - and pinot noir was explosive, Scott. I mean, it's incredible to me what's happened to pinot. Pinot is much more part of the lexicon. It shrank a lot more. The prices have gone up, you know.

SIMON: Virginia Madsen in the film delivers a peon to pinot noir, right?

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: That's right. And pinot gets a huge play and a huge bump. And merlot took a little decline. But the fact of the matter is merlot is continuing to kind of grow over the last three or four years. I think people have forgotten.

You know, back to your opening dialogue, you know, that was so 2005, 2004, right? But it's a long time ago now. I mean, it's more than half a decade. I think people are forgetting. Other things have popped up in pop culture. And merlot has been the beneficiary of being forgotten about that line.

SIMON: Is merlot, generally speaking, a little bit preferred in winter?

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's funny. And you said it a full body - I bet you a lot of who were listening when you said merlot is know as a full-bodied wine - and I was sitting here, I was like I wonder what some of the wine nerds are going to think when you said that. Because in the wine world it's considered more of a medium-bodied wine, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: But only because people are comparing it to cabernet. In that context, I find merlot to be very full bodied as well. I've always felt that it was a more of a closer to full-bodied than medium-bodied wine. And that clearly makes it something of a steak wine, of a winter wine.

So you're absolutely right. Because of its heaviness it's something that people are drawn to more in the fall and the winter.

SIMON: Yeah. Now, you thoughtfully have provided samples here.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Yes.

SIMON: And I'm just going to let you take over now and guide me through it. All right.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Well, let's start with the Columbia Crest Horse Haven Hills H3 merlot. So a lot of the listeners, I know they're very savvy, the NPR crew. They know the Columbia Crest brand. It's a great supermarket brand. They make nice solid, you know, to average $8 wines. But this is more of a $12 to $20 brand depending on the market you're in. And this is the H3 label. And you can see the label's quite nice.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: So I'm going to pour a little here.

(Soundbite of liquid pouring)

SIMON: OK. I'm going to do the same.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: All right. So you've poured some.

SIMON: Yeah, right here.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: All right. So let's go through our motions here. You know I love the sniffy sniff. So anybody listening right now, if you drink wine you've got to smell your wine more. It really enhances the experience. It opens up your palates to the flavor. So, Scott, on the sniffy sniff what are you getting?

SIMON: Chocolate?

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: That's a great call actually. I get a very heavy dosage of chocolate-covered cherries on this one.

SIMON: Yeah, that's it. Yeah, that's it. Yeah.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: There's red fruit. There's a little raspberry, maybe even a little pomegranate on the tail end of the nose.

Let's give this a whirl. Let's try it.

(Soundbite of swishing)

SIMON: Oh, I like that. Um.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Yeah. So this is to me....

SIMON: Oh, boy that is - oh, sorry.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Go ahead. Go ahead. Break it down.

SIMON: Yeah. No. No. Well, I'm going to refer to, you know, return to the chocolate-covered cherry stuff. That's really good. But there's a real smoothness to this that's really nice.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: So that's the part - and that's a great job. And this is why this wine's exploding, this H3 merlot. It's so silky smooth.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: And most wines that are this smooth...

SIMON: I'm upending the last couple of drops in here. Yes?

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Yeah. No. I mean, most wines this smooth have to normally be priced at $25, $30. And this at $12 to, you know, to $15 to $17 really delivers a silkiness that most people like now The one thing I would say, the one caveat is it's kind of oaky, right?

SIMON: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: So there is a little bit of an oaky kind of - I almost feel like I'm taking a splinter out of my tongue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

You know, but if you like the oak, if you can deal with the oak monster, as I like to say. And it's not too much...

SIMON: No. No.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: ...but it's definitely there. And you have to know your palate. If you like the oak, you know, the silver oak style of cabernet, then you're going to find this merlot to be very appealing.

We're going to go to Italy of all places. People don't think about merlot in Italy. The Linari (ph) 2003. This has a little cabernet in it.

SIMON: Oh, wait. Hold on.

(Soundbite of liquid pouring)

This is the black label, right?

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: That is right. It's a black label wine. This is from Venezia. This is an interesting wine. It's 90 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. Let's give it a sniffy sniff.

(Soundbite of sniffing)

SIMON: Hmm. Cherries?

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Yeah, I agree. Big, big cherries come through right away. It has a little more stinky stink, don't you agree?

SIMON: Yeah, very much so, yeah.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: There's a little bit of like a charcoal, stinky, smoky, gamey component on the nose. All right, let's give it a whirl.

SIMON: I like the charcoal part of it.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: It makes me think of, like, pork pulled sandwiches. I don't know. It's barbecue-y. Do you notice on the tail end right now there's a little savory style, almost like soy sauce?

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Which I think is appealing.

SIMON: So, if we weren't doing a tasting, you'd have merlot on your own time, on your own dime?

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Yeah. You know what's so funny? I went a long period without having merlot. Even prior to "Sideways," I would say from 2000, 2004, I had very little merlot. I kind of got into it in the late '90s then stopped really focusing on it. But then, you know, I'm a little bit countercultural. So, when it was getting dissed a little bit by Hollywood I decided to explore it more. Plus, in general, I've been to France a lot more since 2004, especially in the Right Bank.

So, drinking a lot of these top-notch Balmoral and Saint Emilion wines, you know, you go to Balmoral, you go to Saint Emilion, I promise you you're going to re-fall in love with merlot real quick.

SIMON: OK. It's worth the trip just for that...

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Absolutely.

SIMON: ...under any circumstance. Our friend Gary Vaynerchuk, our wine guy and bestselling author. His new book comes out next month: "The Thank You Economy." Thank you, Gary.

Mr. VAYNERCHUK: Thank you.

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